Sunday, April 18, 2004

Book on Tape: Props to my Pepys

Pepys' Diary; Samual Pepys, Read by Kenneth Branagh. 1995 HighBridge Company, 9 hours on 6 cassettes.

So when I was working for Wizkids, I had a half-hour commute up and back from Bellevue, and listened to books on tape over the drive. Now I drive down the hill to work, and rarely turn on the radio, much less the tape player, unless there is traffic. As a result, it taken me six months to finish listening to this collection, which I started before leaving Wizkids.

Samual Pepys (pronounced "peeps" - hence the pun in the title) kept a diary for ten years, from 1659 to 1669. He was lower middle class, but over the course of events rose to upper middle classdom as a bureaucrat for the Navy. During the period he kept this journal he records the Plague, the Great Fire of London, and two wars with the Dutch. He also records a huge amount of personal life of the era - dining, visiting, housekeeping, theatre, and scandal, which is what makes his diary such a boon to people wanting to know of the period. Of particular interest to our current sensibilities is the rah-rah run-up to a war with the Dutch (combined with plans for making good money off it), followed by the ashen realization that the British were not going to win (the Dutch actually landed troops on England at one point), and the political assigning of the blame thereafter.

Pepys himself is, to be polite, a bit of a bounder. He drinks, wenches, and attends the theatre, and bemoans his fleshy weakness throughout. He is not above trading sexual favors for political advancement as a matter of doing business, but flies into a righteous fury when he believes his wife is having an affair with the dance instructor. And his final year of recording is taken up with the fallout of him being caught feeling up his wife's maid. His wife puts him through hell for this, and he is such a victim within his diary that you feel sympathy for him, until you realize - oh yeah, his wife caught him feeling up the maid.

Sam Pepys is also deeply, deeply concerned with his money. His diary is filled with transactions, both legitamate and less-so (though he takes pride in giving good service for his bribes, and expecting likewise). During the Great Fire his worry was less for the citizens of London but for the fact that he had to get his lockbox of plate and gold out of the city. He sends it out with his wife, father, and some servants, and then flies into a fury when he finds out they buried in their country garden, in full view of the neighboring houses. The coins that passed through Pepys' fingers were well-squeezed, and his honesty about his greed (and other sins) makes the diary good entertainment.

The book on tape format is a good one for the diary, which is, at heart, a diary. A solid read-through of the book (and this is abridged, as the original diary is 9 volumes) would be plodding. The only other gripe is that whenever Sam descends into his wenching ways, he shifts to a patois of French and Latin to provide some linguistic cover for his acitons (or perhaps there were no decent English words at the time). At those points reader Branagh also drops his voice and softly mutters the words, which makes it difficult to hear above the road noise.

The diary ends on a cliffhanger - Pepys declares that his eyes (which he always complaining of) have become too weak, such that he must trust others to keep his diaries, and cannot be as honest. Plus the fact that he is going to the Netherlands as an observer/spy. Plus he needs to get out of town because he is still moonsick about the maid. It seems like a collection of pat answers, but there it ends (if others did keep up the diaries, they did not survive, as far as I know). Most likely, much like these on-line journals, Pepys tired of keeping it, and, aware that they could be read by others years afterwards, went his own way without them. We know that three years after ending the diaries, he was elected to Parliament, and that in the mid-eighties he was responsible for reforms in the British Navy which helped strenghthen it for the next century. But never did we see the continuance of honesty, gossip, and personal failings that made up Sam Pepys in his journal of this decade.

More later,